In July 2022 the famous Gion Festival in Kyoto was held for the first time in three years due to the COVID pandemic. The roots of the month-long festival originate in 869 AD when people were suffering from a terrible pestilence. For more than 1100 years the Festival has survived many natural and man-made disasters. It is seen as a great symbol of sustainability and the enduring human spirit. July 24th, the day of the second 2022 Gion float parade, coincided with a Zoom event where I shared stories from my eclectic and extensive library of ‘Things Japanese’. My library includes a selection of physical and digital publications, photographs, mementos and experiences guided by the relationship between nature and people in Japan, through the lens of nature’s elements and two five element cosmologies. This was the fourth event in an ongoing series where Writers in Kyoto (WiK) members share their libraries (the first three events were held in physical libraries, not a virtual one). My Zoom presentation described the genesis, evolution and use of the library intertwined with my increasing engagement with Japan. It featured stories and lessons learnt through selected publications (including my own) and the people and experiences related to them. This post draws on the Zoom event, includes links to relevant sources (bolded), and incorporates additional material based on my reflections and questions asked by the audience. There are many stories to tell, so grab your favourite beverage and settle in.
Sustainable Daisen is a Non-Profit Organisation (NPO) promoting sustainable practices to help ensure the survival of the endemic Japanese Giant Salamander, Andrias japonicas. This rare species is threatened by habitat destruction/modification, population fragmentation, hybridisation and climate change and listed as ‘vulnerable’ in the Red Data Book (published by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment). The heartland of Sustainable Daisen is the Nawa River Basin, on the foothills of Mt Daisen, close to the Sea of Japan. The unique breeding population of the Japanese Giant Salamander (JGS) found in the basin is facing extinction if business-as-usual continues. Water, and its cycling through land, air and sea, is the element most critical to the conservation of this aquatic species. It is also the key element in the long history of worship of Mt Daisen. Within this rich cultural setting a holistic approach to managing salamander habitat is being implemented, focusing on rivers, forests, farmland and villages. Sustainable Daisen has built an impressive team, website, and many productive collaborations including with the research community. This and other initiatives to save the JGS in the region have received national and international attention. It was my pleasure to meet Richard Pearce, the CEO of Sustainable Daisen, in Tottori Prefecture in May 2018. Since then our lives have been intertwined through our shared enthusiasm for nature, Shugendo and forging a sustainable future for our planet.
The pentagram (J. gobosei) is a powerful symbol over 5000 years old, primarily associated with Europe and the Middle East. In contemporary Japan the pentagram is closely connected to Abe no Seimei, the Heian-era Onmyodo practitioner popularly known as the ‘Wizard or Master of YinYang‘. Depending on the source, Seimei is credited with having either independently created the pentagram around 1000 years ago or adapted/borrowed it from Daoist charts in currency at that time. Elsewhere I’ve read that the symbol was introduced to Onmyodo through Tantric Buddhism, with the original source going way back to the Pythagoreans. My principal interest in the pentagram is its representation of the five elements/phases (J. gogyo) of Wood, Earth, Water, Fire and Metal. As well as exploring the connection with Seimei, this brings Kampo (a form of traditional Japanese medicine) and fusui (the Japanese way of Feng Shui) into the mix. The challenge to research, describe and interpret the origin, history and symbolism of the pentagram in Japan has been great and is ongoing. The purpose of this exploratory post is to share progress with the intriguing and mysterious puzzle so far and discover if readers can contribute additional pieces.
Five years ago today I hit the ‘Publish’ button on my first post about Elemental Japan. Titled ‘A story waiting to be told‘ the post introduced and set the context for my upcoming travels to and within Japan where the prime focus would be on the elements. With my travel companion Suki (a soft toy dog) by my side, and a mind map and copious notes at hand, an incredible and life-changing journey was about to begin. Reflecting on the last half decade – the places visited in Japan, the friendships made, the experiences experienced, the blog posts written – provides an opportunity to share the lessons learnt and look to the future. It is a milestone worth celebrating and contemplating. There is a lot to cover, so find your favourite reading spot, grab a drink if you so desire, and enjoy this story about Elemental Japan…so far.
The gorinto is fundamental to my explorations of Elemental Japan. Composed of stacked geometric forms that represent earth, water, fire, wind and space this Buddhist monument embodies the interconnectedness of all creation in tangible form. It has deep spiritual symbolism and significance. Largely found as a grave marker in contemporary Japan, the gorinto has a long association with meditation, medicine, memorials, martial arts and use as a reliquary. In modern times the beautifully balanced and striking form of the gorinto has seen the imagery and elemental connections adopted more widely. From Koyasan – the Shingon Buddhist pilgrimage site that is the ‘home’ of the gorinto – to Kyushu, Kamakura, Zentsu-ji and beyond, my fascination with this form has taken me across the length and breadth of Japan, as well as tracking down related material wherever I can.
The Japanese five-storied pagoda (gojunoto) is a remarkable piece of Buddhist architecture that represents the five elements of earth, water, fire, wind and space/void. It has played a significant role in Japanese culture for over 1400 years and continues to do so. Built to enshrine Buddhist relics and as a focus of devotion, the towering form of the gojunoto captures and captivates the imagination. Their layered wooden grooves ascending in stages towards the sky evoke a spiritual connection. The metal spire at the top completes the structure and symbolism. The sophisticated wooden architecture of the pagoda provides resistance to the elemental forces of earthquakes and strong winds, a design that has informed modern multi-story architecture. With it’s origin in India, and influences from Chinese architecture, the Japanese pagoda has developed into a distinctive form. My search for gojunoto and the way they are represented has opened up a new and exciting dimension of Elemental Japan.
Mt Atago is the highest mountain in the ranges that flank Kyoto. It has been a place of Shugendo practice and worship for over 1300 years. Ever since learning that a deity that provided protection from fire was enshrined there, my heart was set on climbing the mountain. The first opportunity to ascend Mt Atago arose on the 21st of May 2017 when a friend and I hiked the 3.7 km trail to Atago Jinja at the summit. The second ascent took place on the 7th of October 2018 as part of a Shugendo pilgrimage with Wani-ontakesan. Both visits to Mt Atago, with their different seasons and different circumstances, were compelling in their own way. Both were connected to the element of fire and in October 2018 to the phenomenal power of typhoons. The energy of the mountain and the long history of veneration at Mt Atago was palpable.
Kampo, which translates as ‘Han Method’, has a history of nearly 1500 years in Japan. This holistic and elemental approach to medicine primarily relies on the prescription of herb formulas as well as encompassing acupuncture, moxibustion, and other components of the Chinese medical system. Unique aspects of Kampo include the selection of herbs prescribed and the use of palpation of the abdomen (hara) as a diagnostic tool. After a period of decline following the Meiji Restoration, Kampo is widely practiced today and the prescription of herbs integrated into the modern health care system and the National Health Insurance Scheme. My first direct exposure to Kampo, and its connection to InYo (C. Yinyang) and the Five Elements/Phases, was at the Nihondo Kampo complex in Shinagawa, Tokyo. This bought home the continuing relevance of Kampo, and the Five Chinese Elements/Phases, in contemporary Japan.
Cherry blossoms are synonymous with Japan. It was these ephemeral beauties that determined the starting date of March 23rd, 2018 for a two month trip to further explore the elements in the Land of the Rising Sun. The first month was spent with my sister Ruth. Together we saw Sakura in different phases of development, from gorgeous pink buds to trees mostly covered with leaves. The experience was magical, with the highlight the cherry blossom viewing party (hanami), next to Fushimi Castle in Kyoto. My solo travel spanned early Summer, a season of vibrant greens, Azaleas, Irises, the hint of hydrangeas and the flooding of rice paddies. Starting in Kamakura, the second month found me in Tokyo during Golden Week, travelling in southern and northern Honshu, and ending in Sendai to visit the 3/11 Community Memorial Centre. Here I introduce some of the elemental themes and transformations that occurred over this stimulating two months with a focus on the flower that captivates a nation.
Mt Ontake is a sacred mountain 100 km northeast of Nagoya on the border of Nagano and Gifu Prefectures. At 3067 m it is the second highest volcano in Japan, after Mt Fuji. Pilgrimages to worship Mt Ontake and seek spiritual enlightenment have been made for centuries and continue today. On 23-24 January 2018 I joined a winter pilgrimage on Ontakesan with the Wani-ontakesan community, led by three Shugendo masters. Undertaking ascetic practices on the mountain in extreme conditions reinforced that we are part of nature and the universe. Sharing this experience with others and hearing the word of Gods and ancestors through a medium – a hallmark of Mt Ontake worship – was profound and empowering. The rituals and prayers associated with the pilgrimage were a sign of deep respect and reverence for Mt Ontake and its Gods, and the ancestors memorialised on its volcanic slopes. This transformative experience deepened my understanding and appreciation of the elements in Japan and Japanese culture. It is a pleasure to share my impressions of the two days spent with this remarkable community of faith.